Today we share the third of four pieces of public writing selected for publication from an assignment in ENGL 801 “Introduction to Graduate Studies”: a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words) which tailors an academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.
Read more about the assignment and the first two publications, “Over the Garden Wall is Trying to Scare Your Kids, and That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Ben Trickey (MA ’23) and “Death and the Afterlife in Ecclesiastes and Hamlet” by Anne-Sophie Tooley (MA ’22), in the posts shared during the past week. Now, on to “Sex List” by Hunter Scott (MA ’22)!
— Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 (Fall 2021)
- Let’s talk about sex.
- After all, the narrator in Carmen Maria Machado’s 2017 short story “Inventory” does. In fact, she doesn’t just talk about sex, she lists. Told over the course of a mere twenty paragraphs, the nameless queer narrator of “Inventory” recounts her sex life as a global pandemic blossoms around her, disrupting and consuming humanity. Sound familiar?
- Ostensibly, yes, “Inventory” is a short story. Indeed, it’s the second of eight short stories to appear in Machado’s award-winning collection Her Body and Other Parties. But, as its title suggests, “Inventory” is also a list: it’s a catalogue of queer sex acts (fingering! dildos! public sex!) and sex partners (twenty-three in all, some men, some women, some repeated lovers, and some at the same time) amidst the background of a deadly epidemic that “only pass[es] through physical contact” (Machado 38). Like its indiscriminate narrator who fluctuates between same-sex and cross-sex partners, the form of “Inventory” is also queer insofar as it dissolves boundaries between categories—not just generic boundaries of short stories and lists, but as we’ll see, boundaries between the practical and poetic, the finite and the infinite, and the present and the absent—in order to express the necessity of queer intimacy.
- To give the short story its list-like structure, each paragraph in “Inventory” begins with a slight variation on the same refrain. First, the narrator states the number, then the sex of a person who comprises her sexual autobiography. The rest of the paragraph then describes the narrator’s sexual encounter with that person. Thus, through the repetition of opening phrases like “One man,” “One woman,” and “Two women,” a pattern develops as the narrator enumerates her sex life. Through this pattern of enumeration, the short story’s form as a list emerges (Machado 34, 38, and 39).
- But, if “Inventory” is a list, just what type of list is it?
- Well, according to philosopher Umberto Eco, there are two kinds of lists: “practical” and “poetic” (113). For Eco, practical lists are defined by their referential and finite qualities (113). Think: a list of groceries or a table of contents. Practical lists are pragmatic and objective. They have a clear beginning and a clear end. At a brief twenty paragraphs, each referring to a specific sexual encounter, “Inventory” could easily be seen as practical list.
- At the same time, “Inventory” could also be seen as a poetic list. Whereas practical lists refer to that which is present, finite, and known, poetic lists point to the opposite: the absent, the infinite, and the unknown. I know, it’s a little abstract, but bear with me and Eco here. To make the idea of poetic lists more concrete, consider the function of an Et Cetera as a gesture to the endless continuity of a list. Et Ceteras keep lists going on and on and on. There is no end in sight with an Et Cetera. Therefore, they reveal the infinite unknown.
- But “Inventory” doesn’t end with an Et Cetera. In fact, the final word in the story is “faster,” not “etc.” (Machado 43). How can “Inventory” be a poetic list without an Et Cetera? And how can “Inventory” be a poetic list if it’s already a practical list? Don’t worry, Eco’s got an answer for us here, too.
- For Eco, the boundaries between practical lists and poetic lists are porous and when confronted with the “topos of ineffability,” practical lists can become poetic lists (Eco 49). When faced with the ineffable, “something that is immensely large, or unknown, of which we still do not know enough,”—something, oh, I don’t know, like a global pandemic—the closed form and finitude of a practical list are exploded, and they cannot but help to reveal that which was previously absent: the infinite unknown. This is the queer paradox at the heart of lists. Lists are fluid, unstable. They can fluctuate between and therefore challenge simplistic modes of classification. In the academic field of Queer Studies, the instability of meaning and the disruption of conventional systems of categorization are hallmarks of queerness. Therefore, with a little help from Eco, we can see the queerness of “Inventory” both in its lesbian content and its formal qualities as a list.
- As a queer medium conveying queer content, “Inventory” embodies Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message” (7). For McLuhan, since form brings meaning, the list form of “Inventory” brings forth its message of connection and physical intimacy because enumeration “originates in our sense of touch” (109). Whether reaching out to a crowd or learning to count on our hands, enumeration reveals a message about the necessity for human touch.
- As a queer list that enumerates its narrator’s queer sexual encounters throughout a deadly pandemic, “Inventory” highlights the necessity for human connection and queer intimacy. Despite the unknown causal agent of the epidemic “only pass[es] through physical contact,” the narrator continues to have sex (Machado 38). In other words, she ignores the advice of a CDC employee whom she fucks to “stay apart” from other people as she continues to engage in moments of physical intimacy despite knowing its dangers (38). By first having sex throughout an epidemic and then enumerating it through a list, “Inventory” and its narrator testify to the necessity of connection and queer intimacy, risks be damned.
- So, my apologies to Salt-N-Peppa, but let’s do more than simply talk about sex. Let’s do it.
- List it, that is.
Eco, Umberto. The Infinity of Lists. Translated by Alastair McEwen, Rizzoli, 2009.
Machado, Carmen Maria. “Inventory.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 33-43.
McLuhan, Marshall. “Number: Profile of the Crowd.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, 1965, pp. 106-118.
— Hunter Scott (MA ’22)